The Samaveda Upanishads

Saraswathi Goddess of Music and Knowledge

by Jayaram V

The Samaveda (or Sama Veda) is the book of Samans, which are sung according to particular meters. It is the second oldest Veda, next to Rigveda and prior to the Yajur and Atharva Vedas. It contains 1875 verses (mantras) of varying lengths and meters, containing 24 to 40 or 50 syllables. They form part of the hymns, which are collections of several mantras.

Both Rigveda and Samaveda have several verses in common. The prevailing view is that the verses that are common to both the Vedas belong to the Rigveda. However, some believe the opposite to be true. Vedic tradition holds that the Vedas are the heard ones (sruti), not composed by any humans (apaurusheya). Some believe that they are called Sruti not because they originate from God but because until modern times the Vedas were never rendered into written form and were always passed on from one person to another, and from one generation to another through oral means.

The Samans of the Samaveda are sung during Vedic sacrifices in the beginning (Prastava), middle (Udgita) and end (Pratihara). It is believed that it is the source of Indian classical music, dance, drama and various ragas. An ancillary text (Upaveda) called the Gandharva Veda contains information and rules for setting the music and melodies for the Samans and playing various musical instruments. The Samaveda also mentions Vina, the musical instrument of goddess Saraswathi. Because of its melodious nature and devotional element, Lord Krishna declared in the Bhagavadgita that of the Vedas, the Samaveda was his manifestation (Vibhuti).

We do not know whether Samaveda has been fully preserved in its current form over the millenniums or parts of it were lost. According to R. T. H. Griffith three recensions of the Samaveda Samhita survived namely the Kauthuma, Rāṇāyanīya and Jaiminiya recensions. The first one was prevalent in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, and Orissa. The second one, in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gokarna, and parts of Orissa. The third one was found in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Kerala.

The Upanishads of Samaveda

The fourth part of each Veda is known as the Vedanta (end of the Vedas) or the Upanishads (sitting near and beneath). The Sama Veda contains 15 Upanishads. Of them two are major Upanishads namely Chāndogya and Kena Upanishads. The remaining 13 are minor Upanishads namely Vajrasūchi, Maha, Sāvitrī, Āruṇeya, Maitreya, Brhat-Sannyāsa, Kuṇḍika or Laghu-Sannyāsa, Vāsudeva, Avyakta, Rudrākṣa, Jābāli, Yogachūḍāmaṇi and Darśana. A brief description of each of the Upanishads is stated below.

Chandogya Upanishad

Technically speaking, the Chandogya Upanishad is a Brahmana because it forms part of the Chandogya Brahmana of the Samaveda. Out of the ten chapters of the Brahmana, the first two form part of the Brahmana, containing the knowledge of sacrifices and methods of worship, while the last eight constitute the Chandogya Upanishad. Historically, it is also one of the oldest and the largest of the Upanishads, with 629 verses, which are arranged into eight chapters and 154 sections. Of the eight chapters, the first one contains the highest number of verses and the lowest number of sections, while the seventh chapter has the lowest number of verses and the highest number of sections. The Upanishad deals with the significance of Samans, their parts, their ritual and symbolic connection with Brahman, symbolism of the Udgita, the superiority of Breath, human life as a sacrifice, what leads to rebirth and liberation, the significance of worshipping Brahman, the nature of the individual Self, the names of Brahman and how to know him.

Kena Upanishad

Like the Isavasya Upanishad, the Kena Upanishad derives its name from the starting word, 'kena,' meaning by whom. It belongs to the Talvakara or Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana of the Samaveda. Hence, it is also known as the Talvakara Upanishad. It is divided into four sections. The first two sections are in verse, containing fourteen verses and the next two are in prose, with 21 passages. The latter contains a story that brings to light not only the supremacy of Brahman in relation to the Vedic gods but also their comprehensive ignorance of him. The Upanishad contains the secret knowledge of Brahman, the indeterminate nature of the knowledge of Brahman, how even gods have little knowledge of him and how to attain him through remembrance, austerities, restraints, etc.

Vajrasuchika Upanishad

Vajrasuci means a point that is hard like a diamond or forceful like a thunderbolt. The point is a reference to its sharpness to pierce through the traditional, superior status of Brahmanas as knowers of Brahman or the ignorance and delusion of people who want to become liberated. Vajrasuchika (Vajrasucika) Upanishad is believed to be a medieval text and according to some may be even Buddhist in origin. It is firmly opposed to the orthodox opinion that priesthood (brahmanatvam) arises by birth and argues forcefully that a person does not become a Brahmana because of the nature of his embodiment or the body, birth, knowledge, actions or religious duty, but only by knowing Brahman, who is free from faults, eternal, truth, consciousness and bliss. In this regard, the Upanishad very much reads like a manifesto of the Virasaiva sect of Saivism founded by Basavanana in the 12th century BCE.

Maha Upanishad

The Maha Upanishad is one of the minor Upanishads of Hinduism which reveres Maha Vishnu as the highest supreme Brahman. The text is classified as a Vaishnava Upanishad. Two versions of the Upanishad are available. One is associated with Samaveda, and the other with Atharvaveda. The one associated with the latter is shorter and in prose, while that of the Samaveda is longer. It is also composed partly in prose and partly in metrical form. The famous saying, the world is one family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam), is found in this Upanishad only.

The Savitri Upanishad

The Savitri Upanishad extols Savitr, the solar deity and his Shakti, Savirtri. It contains the knowledge of Savitr (Savitri-vidya) and describes him as the source of all manifestation. It upholds the nondualism of Brahman and suggests seekers should meditate upon the Universal Being (Virat Purusha) with the help of two mantras known as Bala (strong) and Atibala (super strong). It also links the Gayatri mantra with different aspects of creation.

Aruneya Upanishad

The Aruneya Upanishad refers to the setting sun, or the last phase of human life, namely Sanyasa. The Upanishad contains the conversation between god Prajapati and sage Aruni, in which the latter asks the former how one can give up rituals, which are obligatory to a householder, and enter the life of a renunciant. Prajapati suggests that it is by renouncing all relationships, attachments, external marks, titles, family name, status, desire for the higher and lower worlds that one should begin the journey as a renunciant. He also suggests how to give up the use of fire by sacrificing breath (prana) in inner fire of sacrifice (Prana-agnihotra). The Upanishad also describes the nature of Paramahansas, the great swans (swans).

The Maitreya Upanishad

The Maitreya Upanishad, like the Aruneya Upanishad deals with the subject of renunciation. Like the latter it recognizes knowledge and renunciation as the principal means to liberation (Moksha). The Self is the Lord, who resides in the heart and witnesses everything. By renouncing all, one can become one with him and experience his rapturous state. The Upanishad extols Shiva as the Self and as the Supreme Brahman. He is also presented as the teacher to sage Maitreya. Renouncing rituals, developing distaste for the mind and body, cultivating equanimity and detachment through renunciation are few methods suggested in it to stabilize the mind in the contemplation of the Self.

The Brihat-Sannyasa Upanishad

The Brihat-Sannyasa Upanishad, also known as Sanyasa Upanishad, deals with the monastic discipline, who is qualified to become a renunciant, the types of renunciants, how they should conduct themselves, the rules applicable to dress, appearance, the begging practices, the types of sanyasis and their qualifications, and so on. It is a later medieval work with no definitive texts, since several recensions and corrupt versions are in circulation. Like the other Sanyasa Upanishads, it also emphasizes the importance of renouncing worldly life and ritual practices, and urges the aspirants to lead an austere life to achieve liberation.

The Kundika Upanishad

The Kundika Upanishad also deals with the subject of renunciation or sanyasa. The text is similar in many respects to the Brihat-Sannyasa Upanishad, but being a shorter version is also known as Laghu (shorter) Sannyasa Upanishad. It describes how a person should prepare for the life of renunciation in stages, starting with Brahmacharya. Once he becomes a renunciant, he should become a homeless wanderer, with just a few possessions. He should live by begging for food, eating whatever he receives, and avoid harming or hurting anyone. When he attains liberation, he sees all in himself and himself in all.

The Vasudeva Upanishad

The Vasudeva Upanishad is a Vaishnava Upanishad, which belongs to the later medieval period. It deals with Urdhva Pundra or the religious mark (tilaka) of Vaishnavas. Presented as a conversation between sage Narada and Lord Vasudeva Krishna, it explains how to apply the mark on the body by different categories of people and the symbolic significance associated with it. During the phases of Brahmacharya or Grihasta, Vaishnavas are supposed to wear the mark on their foreheads after reciting the hymn which is mentioned in the Upanishad. However, Vanaprasthas, who retire into forests for spiritual practice, have to wear it on 12 other parts of the body. The Upanishad regards Lord Krishna as the Supreme Self and suggests how to meditate upon him.

Avyakta Upanishad

Avyakta Upanishad is about the invisible and unmanifested Brahman, the source of all the worlds and beings. It expands upon the ideas presented in the Rigvedic Hymn of Creation (Nasadiya Sukta) according to which the role of Brahman in creation is uncertain. It contains seven chapters with a total of 21 verses, which explain how Prajapati meditated upon the Self and performed an internal sacrifice to create the worlds, gods and beings, including Shiva, Vishnu and Ardhanariswara, according to the advice given by Vishnu. Vishnu in his incarnation as Narasimha ​frequently appearsin them as the teacher along with other prominent gods namely Shiva, Indra, Prajapati, etc. The date of the text is uncertain, since multiple versions are available. It is probably an older Upanishad, which was subsequently redacted into its current version during the later medieval period.

Rudraksha Jabala Upanishad

As the name implies Rudraksha Jabala Upanishd describes the greatness of Rudraksha, or the sacred beads which are used as prayer beads and worn around the neck by devotees for protection, purification and express devotion. They are also used in devotional practices to count how many times the name of a deity or a mantra is repeated. It is a Shaiva Upanishad, containing the conversation between Kalagni Rudra and Sage Bhusunda or Sanatkumara. As the name implies Rudrakshas were born from the eyes (aksha) of Rudra as tears when he meditated for a thousand years. Kalagni Rudra explains to the sage the significance of wearing Rudraksha mala, the mantras associated with it, what types of Rudrakshas are good, how to wear them and what rules and observances should be followed while wearing them.

The Jabali Upanishad

The Jabali Upanishad is a short Upanishad which deals with many concepts of Saivism, presented as a conversation between Sage Pippalada and Sage Jabali. Sage Pippalada raises questions regarding the absolute philosophy of Brahman, referring to the fundamental concepts of Saivism such as Pati, pasu, pasa, jiva and the liberation of jiva. In the very beginning of the Upanishad a jiva, living being, is equated with Shiva, who is Pasupathi or the lord of all the Pashus or living beings. It also explains the significance of the holy ash (Bhasma) what it means and how to apply it on different parts of the body, while uttering specific mantras. According to the Upanishad whoever wears the holy ash, “whether he is a Brahmachari or a Sanyasi, gets rid of great as well as minor sins.”

The Yoga Chudamani Upanishad

The Yoga Chudamani Upanishad has 121 verses. It was probably composed in the medieval period (14 or15 Century AD). As the name suggests it is meant for the yogis who seek liberation (kaivalya) and deals with the practice of yoga for self-purification. The first 71 verses deal with Kundalini Yoga and the significance of various chakras, nadis and pranas (energy paths). The knowledge contained in the Upanishad is the higher knowledge of Yoga, which helps yogis to stabilize their minds and experience self-absorption. According to the Upanishad, Pranayama (breath control) should be practiced while chanting Hamsa mantra. It should be chanted 21,100 times. The mantra called Ajapa mantra can cleanse all the sins and grant salvation. It also awakens the Kundalini. Some verses also explain the spiritual significance of semen (Shukla) and menstrual fluids (rajas).

The Darshana Upanishad

The Darshana Upanishad is a Yoga Upanishad, which presents the essential elements of the classical yoga of Patanjali with additional information on Kundalini. The purpose of Yoga is to know oneself and experience oneness with the Supreme Self. It is an older, minor Upanishad, with ten chapters and 209 verses, but was probably composed later than the Yoga Sutras. Lord Dattatreya is presented as the teacher of yoga. Each chapter deals with a particular limb of classical yoga such as Yamas, Niyamas, Asanas, Pranayama, etc. The last chapter deals with the state of Samadhi. Overall, the Upanishad can be considered a treatise on classical yoga from theistic and Vedanta perspective.

Suggestions for Further Reading


  1. Sama-Veda By S. V. Ganapati, Published by Motilal Banarasidass, 1982, Delhi Reprint 1992
  2. Selected Upanishads, Translated by Jayaram V, Pure Life Vision LLC, 2013
  3. Chandogya Upanishad Translated by Jayaram V, Pure Life Vision LLC 2013.
  4. Paul Deussen, Sixty Upanishads of the Veda, Volume 1, Motilal Banarsidass
  5. Max Müller, The Upanishads, Part 1, Oxford University Press, page LXXXVI

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